Simon Says » communiqué 076/February 2023

Simon Says: communiqué 076/February 2023

Hello everyone

If you’ve been listening to the news recently, you’ve probably heard about ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence (AI) system which, if you believe the hype, is about to become part of our daily lives.

Since its release, ChatGPT has been applied to many use cases and there has been speculation that during 2023 we will have novels written by ChatGPT.

What is ChatGPT?

ChatGPT is a highly sophisticated chatbot—a software application designed to convincingly simulate the way a human would behave as a conversation partner. In other words, you give ChatGPT a prompt and the artificial intelligence system will reply.

So, for example, if I ask:

how is the weather today?

ChatGPT replies:

The weather today is cloudy with a high of 72°F and a low of 60°F. There is a chance of rain in the afternoon.

Any chatbot “learns” how to reply by consuming a vast amount of training data. From that training data, the chatbot predicts the next word (or string of words)—it doesn’t learn facts. As a result, these systems can produce what some people are calling “fluent nonsense” (although they don’t use the word nonsense…). Indeed, in the weather example above, according to today’s BBC Weather, the high is 13°C (55°F), the expected low is 8°C (46°F), and there is no chance of rain.

There are further examples of dubious output. For instance, if you ask ChatGPT to write a paper with citations, it will provide citations within the text, but those citations will be invented. In other words, in its current version, it will give something that looks like citations, but it won’t refer to actual source material.

While some of the output of ChatGPT might be open to question, it’s a hugely significant development, and the rate at which the tool is progressing suggests that next releases will be even more impressive (particularly when the system can include facts and point to sources).

What About Novels?

There are predications that by the end of 2023 the first novels will be written by chatbots. Some suggest we are already there, and that instead of writing books, there are authors using a computer-generated output as their first draft.

The output from ChatGPT is very much determined by the prompt given (such as in the earlier weather example), so the nature of any novel would be driven by the prompt. To test the system, I asked ChatGPT to give me the opening paragraph of a crime novel. This is what I received (and to be clear, I have not edited this text):

It was a foggy night in the city, the kind of night that made people want to stay inside and lock their doors. But on this particular evening, Detective John Smith was out on the streets, searching for clues in a case that had baffled the police for months. Everywhere he went, he felt eyes watching him from the shadows. He knew that time was running out—he had to solve this case before it got too late. He just hoped that he would be able to find the answers he needed before it was too late.

Obviously, it’s easy to knock this text—it’s quite clichéd, the name John Smith isn’t original, there are slightly illogical implications (fog doesn’t necessarily make people want to lock their door), and it’s a bit repetitive (for instance, the several mentions of “too late”). However, for all its shortcomings, I think it’s pretty amazing that in a few seconds, an artificial intelligence system was able to create a plausible first paragraph for a novel.

If I picked up a novel and this was the first paragraph, I’d read the second…but I’m not sure I’d read the third.

I tried creating an opening paragraph for other genres (a romance novel and a literary novel). While different, the three paragraphs all shared a similar vibe with recognizable common elements:

Will We See a ChatGPT Novel?

Probably. Indeed, we’re probably already there.

But the bigger question is: would a computer generated novel be any good? Would it be sufficiently entertaining? And, from a selfish author perspective, could computer-generated novels supplant human-written novels?

In the short-term, I suspect that AI-generated novels simply won’t be good enough. In my brief experiments, the output has been far too “same-y” and generic, without any unique voice or creative spark. Certainly, the output could be edited, but that seems like an awful lot of work when an author could just, you know, sit down and write a book. And from a reader’s perspective, I don’t see these books being sufficiently engaging, at the moment.

Until March

That’s me done for this month. I’ll be back in March when the entirety of the email will be written by me alone.

Until then.

All the best